Florida’s Yale and Harvard grad gov goes to college

Hello and welcome to Wednesday.

ChecklistFlorida Gov. Ron DeSantis is revving up his quest to remake Florida’s higher education system as he marches ever closer to a likely presidential bid.

Out — The push by the governor — which began in small steps last year — accelerated this week. Freshly appointed trustees to New College aligned with DeSantis held a bumpy meeting on Tuesday where they fired the school’s president and said they were hiring Richard Corcoran, a former House speaker and education commissioner, as interim president.

How?The entire scene was apparently orchestrated ahead of time, raising questions about how this comports with Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law. Reports of Corcoran’s hiring started popping up even before the trustee meeting even happened.

Final wordsNew College’s ousted president — Patricia Okker — called what was happening a “hostile takeover” and pushed back against allegations that students were being indoctrinated at the small liberal arts college in Sarasota. Before she made those comments, she said that “I have been informed that the plan includes my termination as president.”

AgendaThe scene in Sarasota came just a few hours after DeSantis announced a new slate of recommendations that he wants legislators to consider for the coming session, including a ban on the spending of money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, giving university presidents a greater say over individual faculty hires, and instituting a core curriculum. (The latter already exists but in a breakout, the administration said the courses must be based on providing a “strong educational foundation not indoctrination.”)

Context — Put it together and this marks probably the most significant round of changes to Florida’s higher education system since it underwent a tumultuous period while then-Gov. Jeb Bush was office that included a dismantling of its governance system as well as the end of affirmative action in college admissions.

We’re No. 1? — All of this is being pursued even though for years now many Republican elected officials have touted Florida’s high marks for its college and university systems. But none of this should be a huge surprise since academia has been viewed as a place where “liberal elites” are in control. The governor’s office even used that phrase in the press release announcing the higher education changes. DeSantis, a graduate of Harvard and Yale, has made targeting elites — whether in media, academia, big business or the medical field — a key part of his brand.

Context — Now, again, political interference in Florida’s colleges and universities is not a new phenomenon and it has occurred under both Democratic and Republican governors but DeSantis has kicked it up a notch.

Road aheadThe governor predicted that New College — which is going to get a boost in extra funding amid all of this — would soon become attractive to students and professors looking for something different amid the current academic environment. The experiment has started.

— WHERE’S RON? — Nothing official for Gov. DeSantis.

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SCENE IN SARASOTA— “New College board fires presidents, installs former GOP House Speaker, DeSantis ally,” by Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Zac Anderson: “Fighting back tears, an emotional [Patricia] Okker said she couldn’t go along with ‘this new mandate where this is a hostile takeover and a dramatic change in the mission.’ Members of the audience — some in tears themselves — urged her to fight for her job. Okker apologized for disappointing them. ‘I believe a president needs to stand behind her words when she asks donors to contribute,’ she said. ‘It is the only way that I can be effective. You cannot ask me to go forward and argue that we are indoctrinating students here. I do not believe it.’”

— “Conservative trustees oust president at Florida’s New College amid leadership overhaul,” by POLITICO’s Andrew Atterbury

— “Change comes swiftly to New College as DeSantis appointees replace president,” by Tampa Bay Times’ Ian Hodgson, Divya Kumar and Lane DeGregory


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